Sen. Hagan pushing VA on NC claims backlog - WNCN: News, Weather

Sen. Hagan pushing VA on NC claims backlog

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

U.S Sen. Kay Hagan on Tuesday sought to increase pressure on the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce a backlog of disability claims from service members returning from a decade of war.

"To me it's unconscionable that this is the way we're caring for men and women who have put their lives on the line for each and every one of us," said the North Carolina Democrat, who called for more manpower to address the backlog.

Her remarks followed a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week urging him to send top officials to help cut down on the Southeast's largest backlog and adopt procedures to prevent lengthy delays in the future. Her office cited VA figures indicating more than 7,000 veterans served by the Winston-Salem regional office, part of the VA's Southern Area, have been waiting a year for a disability claim response, with delays for more than 700 of them extending beyond two years.

A report last month from the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting placed the number of veterans waiting more than a year at the Winston-Salem facility at 8,524. The center found 31,700 veterans have been waiting beyond 125 days, the threshold for entering the backlog.

Disability claims have dominated headlines in recent months as outrage has mounted over reports of backlogs in the hundreds of thousands across the U.S. Nationally, about 600,000 claims for disability compensation, about 70 percent of the total, fall under the backlog.

The Winston-Salem office drew attention following an August 2012 Inspector General report finding 37,000 claims folders were stored on top of file cabinets, posing structural risks to the building itself.

Hagan acknowledged that the problem extends nationwide, calling systemic delays "totally unacceptable," but she said she's initially focusing her attention on the Winston-Salem facility serving most of North Carolina.

"My first and foremost priority is to make sure we get those addressed," she said. "If more manpower would help out, that's what I'm specifically asking (Shinseki) to send."

A VA spokesman said the organization is reviewing Hagan's letter and will provide a formal response.

Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Hagan's effort helps "build momentum for real reform." But he added that with an additional $25 billion in appropriations for the VA since 2009, the problem runs deeper.

"If it's not a resource problem, then there's something inherent in the way the VA does its business that's forcing it to fall behind," he said.

Turning the VA around will take procedural reform from the outside, possibly from new private-sector leadership, Hegseth said, though he stopped short of calling for Shinseki's ouster.

"Stay tuned," he said. "But it's certainly the type of thing where there are promises made that have not been fulfilled."

Shinseki said last month he's committed to ending the backlog in 2015 by replacing paper with electronic records. He told CNN that a decade of war and efforts to make it easier for veterans to collect compensation for certain illnesses such as posttraumatic stress disorder have driven the backlog higher during his tenure.

The VA also blames the backlog on an outmoded processing system and record demand from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The department says it has processed a record 4 million claims since 2009 while adding about one million veterans over that time period with the expansion of benefits.

The Winston-Salem office became one of 18 nationwide to undergo a transition to digital processing from the paper-based model in January. The VA announced then that it plans to update systems at the remaining 38 regional offices this year as well.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem resident who was in the city Tuesday, wasn't available for an interview, but the ranking member of the Senate's Veteran's Affairs committee released a statement saying progress with the backlog has failed to materialize despite years of attention.

"It is time for the Department of Veterans Affairs to realize the damage they are doing to our nation's veterans when the process is broken," the Republican said.

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